The Merigan trailhead at Cuyamaca Rancho State Park is somewhat hidden out of the way on the southwest border of the park. Since its a bit off the beaten track that is Highway 79, this area is quieter and less busy than some of the more popular hikes like Stonewall Peak or Cuyamaca Peak, but just as beautiful as the rest of Cuyamaca.
In our many trips to Cuyamaca, we had neglected to ever explore this area of the park, or even visit the Merigan trailhead. So we decided we’d explore the area by tackling this lollipop hike along the Sweetwater River. We managed to find the trailhead without any difficulty, but hadn’t known ahead of time there was an $8 day use fee to park there. Its a self-registration set-up, which means you get one of the little envelopes out of the dispenser at the trailhead, write in some information, insert your cash, drop the envelope in the collection box, and put the receipt stub on your dashboard. Super easy… if you have exact change on you. We ended up having to drive back down the road to a small market and buy something cheap to break a $20. We got a pack of Oreos, in case you were wondering, and they made an excellent post-hike snack.
Once the payment issues were taken care of, we were finally ready to hike. We made our way past an employee residence and followed the dirt road northward. To our left was a wide open grassy field, and to the right was a rocky ridge with some houses above. Tangles of oak trees and scrub brush lined the trail.
Most of the time our view of the river was obscured by the thick vegetation growing in the canyon, but at one point we were able to get a view of a small waterfall cascading over smooth granite far below. I didn’t see anything that looked like an accessible route down to the river from here.
We came to another stretch of trail lined with oaks. There were both burnt out husks and blackened, but recovering, living trees. Like so much of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park and other areas of San Diego, the trail had been hit by the Cedar Fire in 2003, but the recovery was well underway.
After a while, we once again found ourselves among blackened but recovering oak trees. A dry streambed ran alongside the trail, and despite the absence of water, a healthy population of gnats and flies inhabited the area and seemed to take delight in tormenting two sweaty hikers.
Just shy of 4.7 miles we spotted a game camera mounted on a fence post. This was likely a prime spot for wildlife sightings as just beyond we came to the river again. Once again we were able to keep our shoes dry by using a log to cross the river.
We were almost back at the car when we found a small gopher snake stretched across the road enjoying the cool shade. He politely posed for some pictures, after which we gently encouraged him off the road and into the safety of the surrounding grass.
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From I-8 East, take the CA-79 exit. Follow 79 North for approximately 1.3 miles, then turn left onto Riverside Drive, which at some point turns into Viejas Blvd. Follow Riverside Drive/Viejas Blvd for approximately 1.4 miles to the Merigan Day Use area on the left side of the road (just past the Descanso Hay & Feed Store on the right). map
|Total Distance:||7.9 miles|
|Total Ascent:||700 feet|
|Dog Friendly?:||No dogs allowed|
|Bike Friendly?:||Bikes not allowed|
|Facilities:||Port-a-potty at trailhead, no water|
|Fees/Permits:||$10 Day use fee (self-registration)|